Up to the job? MPs should do their time in Opposition too

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Minister for Health and Medical Services, Dr Ifereimi Waqainabete briefs the media on the update of the COVID-19 during the press conference at Suvavou House in Suva on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Picture: JONACANI LALAKOBAU

Call it the Incredible Shrinking Party. Dr Ifereimi Waqainibete’s resignation as a Parliamentarian brings to five the total of exiting FijiFirst party MPs — in less than three months.

And there were only 26 of them elected after all. The exits were not all voluntary (whatever the conspiracy theorists think). Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum shot himself in the foot by accepting a position on the Constitutional Offices Commission (which he then immediately had to give up).

Frank Bainimarama quit after his three-year suspension from Parliament for a speech attacking the head of State (if he took advice on that speech, his advice clearly wasn’t very good).

The gaffe-prone Mahendra Reddy, Rosy Akbar and now Ifereimi Waqainibete make up the rest. Are you interested in the maths? If you voted FijiFirst, you should be.

I looked up the numbers on the Fiji Elections Office app (now unglitched). Those five MPs represented 164,317, or 73 per cent, of FFP’s 200,246 votes in the 2022 elections.

So three-quarters of FFP voters have now lost the MPs they voted into Parliament three months ago. There have been recriminations – as well there might be. If you go out campaigning and asking people for their votes, you are telling them you want to be their voice in Parliament.

So the least you could do, I think, is stick around, even if the election did not go as you planned. “The real test of a politician’s mettle is when you have to sit in opposition,” tweeted Home Affairs Minister Pio Tikoduadua.

“Some have it, some don’t.” Mr Tikoduadua takes heat from his opponents for being a former Minister in Frank Bainimarama’s government. But no one should forget that he resigned and gave it all away – the $200,000 salary, the flashed-up Ministerial car, all that good stuff – when he could no longer put up with the behaviour of his fellow FijiFirst ministers. Then he came back as a National Federation Party MP – on a backbencher’s salary.

Politics the hard way
One of FijiFirst’s problems – like a number of Fiji political parties that have disappeared into history — is that it was a party born in government. It started life in power. So life without power is alien to it. Most political parties start with nothing but a set of ideas and a few determined people.

The National Federation Party began 60 years ago, mainly as a farmers’ party. The Fiji Labour party was founded in 1984 as a workers’ party after a wage freeze upset the trade unions. You form your party, then the work starts. You have to get members and supporters. You have to set up branches, raise funds and organise (mostly organise large amounts of grog and pots of goat palau).

You have to manage internal party disputes, develop a media profile — and then begin to think about winning elections, maybe at local government level first. You have to persuade voters to believe in you and support you, even though you have nothing to offer them except ideas.

From what I have seen, this is tough, unglamorous work which takes dedication and commitment. Most of us would never do it. Then there are the dozens of armchair advisers who are happy to tell you what you should do, as long as they don’t have to do any work.

But, for those who live for politics, party work builds solidarity and a team spirit as a group united around something – a visionary leader, or a set of ideas and principles.

A party that is formed while its members are in government — including a military government — does not have to worry about all this effort. After all, it is easy to get votes when you have a prestigious public office and all the cameras on you.

Why worry about your party’s ideas and beliefs when you can drive to a park in your G-plate Toyota Prado and sish out $1000 “SME grants”?

Who needs branches? Who needs an organisation? Rich businesses have filled your party coffers. Who even needs volunteers? Just pay everyone!

The trouble is that even these parties eventually lose power. Suddenly they realise that there was never really any vision or a commitment. Being in power was all that mattered. And with no one now willing to do the hard work (since there are now no rewards) the party folds up.

That was the fate of Ratu Mara’s Alliance Party, born at Independence. It fell apart after the 1987 coup. As it was for Sitiveni
Rabuka’s Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT) party after it lost power to the Labour-led Coalition Government in 1999.
Will this be the fate of FijiFirst?

Paying for democracy
The other question raised by all these resignations is whether Parliamentarians – that is, the ones who don’t have Ministerial or Assistant Ministerial positions — are being paid enough to do the job.

It’s reasonable to expect people with the responsibilities of MPs to be (reasonably) well paid. Politics is an insecure business — you can lose your job at almost any time. And if we have any respect for a democratic system of government, shouldn’t our MPs have an incentive to stay?

Certainly FijiFirst’s leaders seemed to care nothing for Parliament. They set backbenchers’ salaries, at $50,000 a year, far away
from Ministers’ salaries (over $200,000). That left Opposition MPs – all backbenchers except the Leader of the Opposition –
with lower incomes, generally meaning they could cause less trouble.

Political parties received funding based not on their needs but on their numbers – $15,000 per MP per year. That meant that,
after the 2018 election, the FijiFirst party, with 27 MPs, got more than $400,000 per year for its Parliamentary operations.

This was even though most of its MPs were Ministers or Assistant Ministers with access to thousands of civil servants and other resources to do their jobs.

An Opposition party like NFP, with three MPs, received $45,000, barely enough to cover the cost of one researcher. It’s not hard to remember just how contemptuously FijiFirst treated Parliament — and of course the Opposition MPs — in Parliament. MPs were lucky to get two days’ notice of new Bills (which Fiji First then voted into law under urgency rules, after an hour’s debate).

Fiji First changed the rules so that the Parliamentary Accounts Committee could be chaired by a Government MP instead of an Opposition one. That meant that any embarrassing questions about its management of Government finances could be quickly knocked back.

Difficult Parliamentary questions filed by any Opposition MP were disallowed by the Parliamentary secretariat (effectively under the control of the Attorney- General’s office) for reasons which made no sense.

And so it went.

Now we have a new government, telling us that it will be different. So we have to demand, and expect, to be consulted and heard
on the things that are important to us.

Many of these things seemed to be hidden from us before – the state of our hospitals, the challenges in our public finances –
even whose guns are allowed on whose planes.

Parliament is at the top of this democratic process. This is where we are entitled to go to demand answers to our questions and to ask for change.

Valuing our MPs
Many of us are cynical about Parliament and politicians. It is easy to be that way. Their job is to make rules for us and manage the taxes we pay — but not all of them seem to be elected for their managerial qualities.

Some of the work — grinding through the details of Bills on taxation, public administration, international treaties and so on — are not things they are supremely
qualified to do.

But they are the people that, together, we chose (which is why the cynics say we get the government that we deserve). They may
not all be experts or ideal managers. But nor are we — and perhaps the most important thing is that our leaders are like us and they represent us.

We should be able to bring petitions to Parliament about the possible destruction of tiri at Leveti Creek. We should be able
to ask hard questions about how much money was spent on Ministers’ overseas travel allowances. We should be able to go to a
Parliamentary select committee and say “this law that you are proposing could be written in a better way, so why don’t you hear
our suggestion?”.

It’s important that we can hold our leaders “accountable”. In my experience the best form of accountability is that elected leaders fear embarrassment about incompetence, waste, corruption or bad decisions that take place on their watch — exposed by a strong and independent news media.

When we, the people, believe we are being listened to and can influence our government – even if it’s not always on everything –
we’re a more confident, open, tolerant society. These values drive social stability. Social stability and confidence are a big part of
the economic equation. A confident country is usually a more prosperous one.

So we do have to pay more attention to, and respect, our Parliamentary process. And — by the way — if we can find the money,
we should return Parliament to the complex we built in Veiuto, instead of trying to jam our whole legislature into a corner of
Government Buildings. Veiuto has lots of space for Parliamentary offices, committee rooms and places for MPs to meet
and interact with the people. That is, after all, what we built it for.

The FijiFirst government had some problem with that logic, but that’s not a good reason to listen to them. After all, what’s left of the Fiji- First government isn’t listening even to its own voters.

  • RICHARD NAIDU is a Suva
    lawyer (who didn’t join a
    political party until 2022). The
    views in this article are not
    necessarily those of The Fiji